Finding and doing your work

From How To Do What You Love

To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We've got it down to four words: "Do what you love." But it's not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated.
The world then was divided into two groups, grownups and kids. Grownups, like some kind of cursed race, had to work. Kids didn't, but they did have to go to school, which was a diluted version of work meant to prepare us for the real thing. Much as we disliked school, the grownups all agreed that grownup work was worse, and that we had it easy.
I'm not saying we should let little kids do whatever they want. They may have to be made to work on certain things. But if we make kids work on dull stuff, it might be wise to tell them that tediousness is not the defining quality of work, and indeed that the reason they have to work on dull stuff now is so they can work on more interesting stuff later.
Once, when I was about 9 or 10, my father told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, so long as I enjoyed it. I remember that precisely because it seemed so anomalous. It was like being told to use dry water. I didn't think he meant work could literally be fun, fun like playing, it took me years to grasp that.
It was not until I was in college that the idea of work finally broke free from the idea of making a living. Then the important question became not how to make money, but what to work on. The definition of work was now to make some original contribution to the world, and in the process not to starve.
How much are you supposed to like what you do? Unless you know that, you don't know when to stop searching. And if, like most people, you underestimate it, you tend to stop searching too early. You'll end up doing something chosen for you by your parents or the desire to make money or prestige, ore sheer inertia.
Here is an upper bound: Do what you love doesn't mean, do what you would like to do most this second.
Even Einstein probably had moments when he wanted to have a cup of coffee, but told himself, he ought to finish what he was working on first. It used to perplex me when I read about people who like what they did so much that there was nothing they'd rather do. There didn't seem to be any sort of work that I like that much. If I had a choice of A, spending the next hour working on something or B, be teleported to Rome and spend the next hour wandering about, was there any sort of work I'd prefer? Honestly, no. But the fact is almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about in the Caribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, then work on hard problems.
Doing what you love doesn't mean do what makes you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period. Unproductive pleasures pale eventually. After a while, you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something. As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of "spare time" seems mistaken, which is not to say that you have to spend all your time working.You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else, even something mindless. But you don't regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it.
To be happy, I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy but admire. You have to be able to say at the end, 'Wow, that's pretty cool.' What you should not do, I think is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You should not worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don't even know? This is easy advice to give. It's hard to follow. If you do anything well enough, you'll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind, though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like and let prestige take care of itself.
How many people even discover something they love to work on? A few hundred thousand perhaps out of billions. It's hard to find work you love. It must be, if so few do. So don't underestimate this task. And don't feel bad if you haven't succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you're discontented, you're a step ahead of most people who are still in denial. If you're surrounded by colleagues who claim to enjoy work that you find contemptible, odds are they're lying to themselves. Not necessarily, but probably.
Although great work takes less discipline than people think because the way to do great work is to find something you like so much that you don't have to force yourself to do it. Finding work you love does usually require discipline. Is there some test you can use to keep yourself honest, always produce. For example, if you have a day job, you don't take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction? However, bad they may be. As long as you're producing, you'll know you're not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate. “Always produce” is also a heuristic for finding work you love. It will automatically push away from things you think you're supposed to work on toward things that you actually like. “Always produce” will discover your life's work, the way water with the aid of gravity finds the hole in your roof".
The other big force leading people astray is money. Money by itself is not that dangerous. When something pays well but is regarded with contempt, like telemarketing, or prostitution, or personal injury litigation, ambitious people aren't tempted by it. That kind of work ends up being done by people who are "just trying to make a living." (Tip: avoid any field whose practitioners say this.) The danger is when money is combined with prestige, as in, say, corporate law, or medicine. A comparatively safe and prosperous career with some automatic baseline prestige is dangerously tempting to someone young, who hasn't thought much about what they really like.
The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it — even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?
Don't decide too soon. Kids who know early what they want to do seem impressive, as if they got the answer to some math question before the other kids. They have an answer, certainly, but odds are it's wrong.
A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell "Don't do it!" (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way — including, unfortunately, not liking it.
Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.
Byrne Hobart echoes this warning against deciding too soon
Byrne Hobart echoes this warning against deciding too soon
In general, it’s good life advice to push back on 18-year-olds who have an entire plan for how they will get their dream job and it can’t happen until they’re 25. You have a lot of life ahead of you at that point and a lot of changes you will go through. It’s hard to reverse course. Getting half of an MD or JD is very expensive and not incredibly valuable. [Kris: I’ve had the same thought. Premature optimization is a recipe for waste and sadness for humans. It also discards the timeless, nature-tested decision-making algorithm of evolution —> optionality]
A lot of those jobs are easy to glamorize from the outside, and they’re less fun on the inside. Doctors and lawyers have high divorce rates, high substance abuse rates, and a lot of people try to get out of those professions. They’re great for some people, but it’s easy to see a cultural narrative that is out of date when you saw it. By the time you’re actually doing that thing, it’s even more out of date.
[Kris: notice the market principle embedded in Byrne’s comment — the bullwhip effect. There’s a lag between heightened job demand and the skill to supply it. I don’t want anyone to get bent out of shape, but here’s a generalization (that means exactly that — it may not apply to any specific instance) — tiger parents are risk averse. They project their risk aversion on their kids. Either by command-and-control or Ouija board nudges, they direct their children towards legible paths that are currently in vogue. It’s probably software engineering more so than lawyers these days but you know what I mean. Legible paths get overbid. And competition is a form of hormesis — it’s all about the dose. If you take too large a dose relative to the reward, especially if the reward is only externally motivating, you will find yourself in the latest new-age rehab — slurping health gurus, chasing real estate syndications for passive income or heaven forbid writing a substack. Also these are best outcomes. The dark side is having the narrow path steal whatever’s left of your vitality. You know, that youthful perspective that still couldn't read a line chart.]
In the piece that I wrote on education financing, I have a footnote on this. Sometimes the cultural norms for a profession get established because there was some group that was very idiosyncratic and someone wrote a book about them or made a movie about them. That solidified that particular group’s norms, and they became the norms for anyone with that job.
A lot of people who are law students or aspiring law students watch the movie, The Paper Chase, where it’s all about a guy’s complicated relationship with his brutally demanding contracts professor. The movie is about 50 years old, so a lot of the professors have also seen it. They sort of know what the great law school professor is supposed to be like, and what the great student is supposed to be like. Everyone sort of plays these roles.
This was also revealed by law enforcement wiretaps of mafiosos that they actually started using cliches from The Godfather after the movie came out, and they all loved the movie. So the movie’s stereotypes became more accurate because it got more widely accepted.
But if you’re entering some career because you’ve heard about it in some context where you know exactly what it’s going to be like, and it sounds incredibly glamorous, you just have to know that to the extent that it actually meets your expectations, it’s because everyone is LARPing. They read the same thing you read, or they watched the same thing you watched, and they’re just trying to bring it back.
This is probably a good reason to not work in the White House. Everyone just wants to be pretending it’s a West Wing episode, and it’s just going to feel so weird and dated and retro and 90s. If you see someone in a meeting reading the Financial Times in the West Wing, you’re just obligated to give them a swirly or something, tell them to knock it off. It was just a TV show. The writing was good, but it shouldn’t have changed your life.
It's also wise, early on, to seek jobs that let you do many different things, so you can learn faster what various kinds of work are like. Conversely, the extreme version of the two-job route is dangerous because it teaches you so little about what you like. If you work hard at being a bond trader for ten years, thinking that you'll quit and write novels when you have enough money, what happens when you quit and then discover that you don't actually like writing novels?
Most people would say, I'd take that problem. Give me a million dollars and I'll figure out what to do. But it's harder than it looks. Constraints give your life shape. Remove them and most people have no idea what to do: look at what happens to those who win lotteries or inherit money. Much as everyone thinks they want financial security, the happiest people are not those who have it, but those who like what they do. So a plan that promises freedom at the expense of knowing what to do with it may not be as good as it seems.
Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it's rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you'll be more likely to arrive at it. If you know you can love work, you're in the home stretch, and if you know what work you love, you're practically there.

From How To Do Great Work

If you collected lists of techniques for doing great work in a lot of different fields, what would the intersection look like? I decided to find out. The following recipe assumes you're very ambitious. The first step is to decide what to work on. Find something you have an aptitude for and a great interest in.
That sounds straightforward, but it is often quite difficult when you're young, you don't know what you're good at. The way to figure out what to work on is by working. If you're not sure what to work on, guess, but pick something and get going. You'll probably get wrong some of the time, but that is fine.
The act of finding your life's work for an entrepreneur usually requires that you're going to have to start more than one business.
Develop a habit of working on your own projects. Do not let work mean something that other people tell you to do.
What should your projects be? Whatever seems to you excitingly ambitious. As you grow older and your taste in projects evolves, exciting and important will converge.
Let's talk a little more about the complicated business of figuring out what to work on.
The main reason it's hard is that you can't tell what most kinds of work are like except by doing them. …
The educational systems in most countries pretend it's easy. They expect you to commit to a field long before you could know what it's really like. And as a result an ambitious person on an optimal trajectory will often read to the system as an instance of breakage.
It would be better if they at least admitted it — if they admitted that the system not only can't do much to help you figure out what to work on, but is designed on the assumption that you'll somehow magically guess as a teenager. They don't tell you, but I will: when it comes to figuring out what to work on, you're on your own. Some people get lucky and do guess correctly, but the rest will find themselves scrambling diagonally across tracks laid down on the assumption that everyone does.
How to figure out what to work on? What you should not do is drift along passively, assuming the problem will solve itself. You need to take action. But there is no systematic procedure you can follow. When you read biographies of people who've done great work, it's remarkable how much luck is involved. They discover what to work on as a result of a chance meeting, or by reading a book they happen to pick up. So you need to make yourself a big target for luck, and the way to do that is to be curious. Try lots of things, meet lots of people, read lots of books, ask lots of questions.
When in doubt, optimize for interestingness. Fields change as you learn more about them. What mathematicians do, for example, is very different from what you do in high school math classes. So you need to give different types of work a chance to show you what they're like. But a field should become increasingly interesting as you learn more about it. If it doesn't, it's probably not for you.
Don't worry if you find you're interested in different things than other people. The stranger your tastes in interestingness, the better. Strange tastes are often strong ones, and a strong taste for work means you'll be productive. And you're more likely to find new things if you're looking where few have looked before.
One sign that you're suited for some kind of work is when you like even the parts that other people find tedious or frightening.
But fields aren't people; you don't owe them any loyalty. If in the course of working on one thing you discover another that's more exciting, don't be afraid to switch.
If you're making something for people, make sure it's something they actually want. The best way to do this is to make something you yourself want. Write the story you want to read; build the tool you want to use. Since your friends probably have similar interests, this will also get you your initial audience.
The rest of this long essay is a mix of tactics and a description of what setbcks and progress look like. Much of it is non-obvious and the explanations have an air of hard-fought wisdom.

From Taste For Makers

"I found that the interesting parts of programming, you can't make scientific. Start-ups are the same. What makes a programmer good at programming is more like what makes a painter good at painting. It is something a little less organized. It is taste, a sense of design, a certain neck.”
I was talking recently to a friend who teaches at MIT. His field is hot now." He's writing this back in 2002. "His field is hot now, and every year, he is inundated by applications from would-be graduate students. A lot of them seems smart, he said. What I can't tell is whether they have any kind of taste. Taste. You don't hear that word much now. And yet, we still need the underlying concept, whatever we call it. Well, my friend Matt was that he wanted students who were not just good technicians, but who could also use their technical knowledge to design beautiful things.
For those of us who design things, these are not just theoretical questions. We need good taste to make good things. Let's try considering it as a practical question: How do you make good stuff?
If you mention taste nowadays, a lot of people will tell you that, 'taste is subjective.' They believe this because it really feels that way to them. Saying that taste is just a personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it's not true. You feel this when you start to design things. Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do it better. Football players like to win games. CEOs like to increase earnings. It's a matter of pride and a real pleasure to get better at your job," which is why I think people read essays like this, read biographies of people that have achieved great things. Whatever job people have, they naturally want to do better.
As in any job, as you continue to design things, you'll get better at it. Your taste will change. And like anyone who gets better at their job, you'll know you're getting better. If so, your old taste were not merely different, but worse. Poof, goes the axiom that taste can't be wrong.

Good design

Good design is timeless. If something is ugly, it can't be the best solution. There must be a better one and eventually someone else will discover it. Aiming at timelessness is a way to make yourself find the best answer. Time is the best filter. Strangely enough, if you want to make something that will appeal to future generations, one way to do it is to try to appeal to past generations. If you can make something that appeals to people today and would also have appealed to people in the year 1500, there's a good chance that it will appeal to people in the year 2500.
Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen's novels contain almost no description. Instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself. Likewise, a painting that suggests is usually more engaging than one that tells. Everyone makes up their own story about the Mona Lisa. In software, it means that you should give users a few basic elements that they can combine as they wish, like LEGO.
Good design is hard. If you look at the people who've done great work, one thing they all seem to have in common is that they worked very hard. If you're not working hard, you're probably wasting your time. Hard problems call for great efforts. Good design looks easy, like great athletes. Like great athletes, great designers make it look easy. Mostly, this is an illusion. The easy, conversational tone of good writing comes only on the eighth rewrite.
Good design can copy. Attitudes to copying often make a round trip. A novice imitates without knowing it; next he tries consciously to be original; finally, he decides it's more important to be right than original.
Unknowing imitation is almost a recipe for bad design. If you don't know where your ideas are coming from, you're probably imitating an imitator. Raphael so pervaded mid-nineteenth century taste that almost anyone who tried to draw was imitating him, often at several removes. It was this, more than Raphael's own work, that bothered the Pre-Raphaelites.
The ambitious are not content to imitate.
The second phase in the growth of taste is a conscious attempt at originality.
I think the greatest masters go on to achieve a kind of selflessness. They just want to get the right answer, and if part of the right answer has already been discovered by someone else, that's no reason not to use it. They're confident enough to take from anyone without feeling that their own vision will be lost in the process.

From What Doesn’t Seem Like Work?

Few people know so early or so certainly what they want to work on. But talking to my father reminded me of a heuristic the rest of us can use. If something that seems like work to other people doesn't seem like work to you, that's something you're well suited for. For example, a lot of programmers I know, including me, actually like debugging. It's not something people tend to volunteer; one likes it the way one likes popping zits. But you may have to like debugging to like programming, considering the degree to which programming consists of it.
The stranger your tastes seem to other people, the stronger evidence they probably are of what you should do. When I was in college I used to write papers for my friends. It was quite interesting to write a paper for a class I wasn't taking. Plus they were always so relieved.
It seemed curious that the same task could be painful to one person and pleasant to another, but I didn't realize at the time what this imbalance implied, because I wasn't looking for it. I didn't realize how hard it can be to decide what you should work on, and that you sometimes have to figure it out from subtle clues, like a detective solving a case in a mystery novel. So I bet it would help a lot of people to ask themselves about this explicitly. What seems like work to other people that doesn't seem like work to you?

From The Power Of The Marginal

Intro to the “outsider”

Now a startup operating out of a garage in Silicon Valley would feel part of an exalted tradition, like the poet in his garret, or the painter who can't afford to heat his studio and thus has to wear a beret indoors. But in 1976 it didn't seem so cool. The world hadn't yet realized that starting a computer company was in the same category as being a writer or a painter.
That's the paradox I want to explore: great new things often come from the margins, and yet the people who discover them are looked down on by everyone, including themselves. It's an old idea that new things come from the margins. I want to examine its internal structure. Why do great ideas come from the margins? What kind of ideas? And is there anything we can do to encourage the process?

Disadvantages of the “insider”

A few of the disadvantages of insider projects: the selection of the wrong kind of people, the excessive scope, the inability to take risks, the need to seem serious, the weight of expectations, the power of vested interests, the undiscerning audience, and perhaps most dangerous, the tendency of such work to become a duty rather than a pleasure.
  1. Risk
    1. Even in a field with honest tests, there are still advantages to being an outsider. The most obvious is that outsiders have nothing to lose. They can do risky things, and if they fail, so what? Few will even notice.
      The eminent, on the other hand, are weighed down by their eminence. Eminence is like a suit: it impresses the wrong people, and it constrains the wearer.
      Outsiders should realize the advantage they have here. Being able to take risks is hugely valuable. Everyone values safety too much, both the obscure and the eminent. No one wants to look like a fool. But it's very useful to be able to. If most of your ideas aren't stupid, you're probably being too conservative.
      Lord Acton said we should judge talent at its best and character at its worst. For example, if you write one great book and ten bad ones, you still count as a great writer — or at least, a better writer than someone who wrote eleven that were merely good. Whereas if you're a quiet, law-abiding citizen most of the time but occasionally cut someone up and bury them in your backyard, you're a bad guy.
      Almost everyone makes the mistake of treating ideas as if they were indications of character rather than talent — as if having a stupid idea made you stupid. There's a huge weight of tradition advising us to play it safe. "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent," says the Old Testament (Proverbs 17:28).
      Tradition is less of a guide, not just because things change faster, but because the space of possibilities is so large. The more complicated the world gets, the more valuable it is to be willing to look like a fool.
      If you're an outsider you should actively seek out contrarian projects. Instead of working on things the eminent have made prestigious, work on things that could steal that prestige.
      The really juicy new approaches are not the ones insiders reject as impossible, but those they ignore as undignified.
  1. Delegation
    1. The eminent feel like everyone wants to take a bite out of them. The problem is so widespread that people pretending to be eminent do it by pretending to be overstretched.
      The lives of the eminent become scheduled, and that's not good for thinking. One of the great advantages of being an outsider is long, uninterrupted blocks of time. That's what I remember about grad school: apparently endless supplies of time, which I spent worrying about, but not writing, my dissertation. Obscurity is like health food — unpleasant, perhaps, but good for you. Whereas fame tends to be like the alcohol produced by fermentation. When it reaches a certain concentration, it kills off the yeast that produced it.
      The eminent generally respond to the shortage of time by turning into managers. They don't have time to work. They're surrounded by junior people they're supposed to help or supervise. The obvious solution is to have the junior people do the work. Some good stuff happens this way, but there are problems it doesn't work so well for: the kind where it helps to have everything in one head.
      Techniques for competing with delegation translate well into business, because delegation is endemic there. Instead of avoiding it as a drawback of senility, many companies embrace it as a sign of maturity. In big companies software is often designed, implemented, and sold by three separate types of people. In startups one person may have to do all three. And though this feels stressful, it's one reason startups win. The needs of customers and the means of satisfying them are all in one head.

The tests that separate insiders from outsiders

A world with outsiders and insiders implies some kind of test for distinguishing between them. And the trouble with most tests for selecting elites is that there are two ways to pass them: to be good at what they try to measure, and to be good at hacking the test itself.
So the first question to ask about a field is how honest its tests are, because this tells you what it means to be an outsider. This tells you how much to trust your instincts when you disagree with authorities, whether it's worth going through the usual channels to become one yourself, and perhaps whether you want to work in this field at all.
Tests are least hackable when there are consistent standards for quality, and the people running the test really care about its integrity. Admissions to PhD programs in the hard sciences are fairly honest, for example. The professors will get whoever they admit as their own grad students, so they try hard to choose well, and they have a fair amount of data to go on. Whereas undergraduate admissions seem to be much more hackable.
One way to tell whether a field has consistent standards is the overlap between the leading practitioners and the people who teach the subject in universities. At one end of the scale you have fields like math and physics, where nearly all the teachers are among the best practitioners. In the middle are medicine, law, history, architecture, and computer science, where many are. At the bottom are business, literature, and the visual arts, where there's almost no overlap between the teachers and the leading practitioners. It's this end that gives rise to phrases like "those who can't do, teach."
Incidentally, this scale might be helpful in deciding what to study in college. When I was in college the rule seemed to be that you should study whatever you were most interested in. But in retrospect you're probably better off studying something moderately interesting with someone who's good at it than something very interesting with someone who isn't. You often hear people say that you shouldn't major in business in college, but this is actually an instance of a more general rule: don't learn things from teachers who are bad at them.
How much you should worry about being an outsider depends on the quality of the insiders. If you're an amateur mathematician and think you've solved a famous open problem, better go back and check. When I was in grad school, a friend in the math department had the job of replying to people who sent in proofs of Fermat's last theorem and so on, and it did not seem as if he saw it as a valuable source of tips — more like manning a mental health hotline. Whereas if the stuff you're writing seems different from what English professors are interested in, that's not necessarily a problem.

The “anti-tests” that reveal the vulnerability of insiders

Where the method of selecting the elite is thoroughly corrupt, most of the good people will be outsiders…If it's corrupt enough, a test becomes an anti-test, filtering out the people it should select by making them to do things only the wrong people would do. Popularity in high school seems to be such a test. There are plenty of similar ones in the grownup world. For example, rising up through the hierarchy of the average big company demands an attention to politics few thoughtful people could spare.
Someone like Bill Gates can grow a company under him, but it's hard to imagine him having the patience to climb the corporate ladder at General Electric — or Microsoft, actually.
It's kind of strange when you think about it, because lord-of-the-flies schools and bureaucratic companies are both the default. There are probably a lot of people who go from one to the other and never realize the whole world doesn't work this way.
I think that's one reason big companies are so often blindsided by startups. People at big companies don't realize the extent to which they live in an environment that is one large, ongoing test for the wrong qualities.
If you're an outsider, your best chances for beating insiders are obviously in fields where corrupt tests select a lame elite. But there's a catch: if the tests are corrupt, your victory won't be recognized, at least in your lifetime. You may feel you don't need that, but history suggests it's dangerous to work in fields with corrupt tests. You may beat the insiders, and yet not do as good work, on an absolute scale, as you would in a field that was more honest.

Appropriating the insider’s largest advantage

A lot of outsiders make the mistake of doing the opposite; they admire the eminent so much that they copy even their flaws. Copying is a good way to learn, but copy the right things. When I was in college I imitated the pompous diction of famous professors. But this wasn't what made them eminent — it was more a flaw their eminence had allowed them to sink into. Imitating it was like pretending to have gout in order to seem rich.
Half the distinguishing qualities of the eminent are actually disadvantages. Imitating these is not only a waste of time, but will make you seem a fool to your models, who are often well aware of it.
What are the genuine advantages of being an insider? The greatest is an audience. It often seems to outsiders that the great advantage of insiders is money — that they have the resources to do what they want. But so do people who inherit money, and that doesn't seem to help, not as much as an audience. It's good for morale to know people want to see what you're making; it draws work out of you.
If I'm right that the defining advantage of insiders is an audience, then we live in exciting times, because just in the last ten years the Internet has made audiences a lot more liquid. Outsiders don't have to content themselves anymore with a proxy audience of a few smart friends. Now, thanks to the Internet, they can start to grow themselves actual audiences. This is great news for the marginal, who retain the advantages of outsiders while increasingly being able to siphon off what had till recently been the prerogative of the elite.
Though the Web has been around for more than ten years, I think we're just beginning to see its democratizing effects. Outsiders are still learning how to steal audiences. But more importantly, audiences are still learning how to be stolen — they're still just beginning to realize how much
deeper bloggers can dig than journalists, how much more interesting a democratic news site can be than a front page controlled by editors, and how much funnier a bunch of kids with webcams can be than mass-produced sitcoms.
The big media companies shouldn't worry that people will post their copyrighted material on YouTube. They should worry that people will post their own stuff on YouTube, and audiences will watch that instead.

Bringing altogether into one prescription

If I had to condense the power of the marginal into one sentence it would be: just try hacking something together. That phrase draws in most threads I've mentioned here. Hacking something together means deciding what to do as you're doing it, not a subordinate executing the vision of his boss. It implies the result won't be pretty, because it will be made quickly out of inadequate materials. It may work, but it won't be the sort of thing the eminent would want to put their name on. Something hacked together means something that barely solves the problem, or maybe doesn't solve the problem at all, but another you discovered en route. But that's ok, because the main value of that initial version is not the thing itself, but what it leads to. Insiders who daren't walk through the mud in their nice clothes will never make it to the solid ground on the other side.
The word "try" is an especially valuable component. I disagree here with Yoda, who said there is no try. There is try. It implies there's no punishment if you fail. You're driven by curiosity instead of duty. That means the wind of procrastination will be in your favor: instead of avoiding this work, this will be what you do as a way of avoiding other work. And when you do it, you'll be in a better mood. The more the work depends on imagination, the more that matters, because most people have more ideas when they're happy.
If I could go back and redo my twenties, that would be one thing I'd do more of: just try hacking things together. Like many people that age, I spent a lot of time worrying about what I should do. I also spent some time trying to build stuff. I should have spent less time worrying and more time building. If you're not sure what to do, make something.
Raymond Chandler's advice to thriller writers was "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand." He followed that advice. Judging from his books, he was often in doubt. But though the result is occasionally cheesy, it's never boring. In life, as in books, action is underrated.
Fortunately the number of things you can just hack together keeps increasing. People fifty years ago would be astonished that one could just hack together a movie, for example. Now you can even hack together distribution. Just make stuff and put it online.

A technique for determining when you're on the right track.

You're on the right track when people complain that you're unqualified, or that you've done something inappropriate. If people are complaining, that means you're doing something rather than sitting around, which is the first step. And if they're driven to such empty forms of complaint, that means you've probably done something good.
If you make something and people complain that it doesn't work, that's a problem. But if the worst thing they can hit you with is your own status as an outsider, that implies that in every other respect you've succeeded. Pointing out that someone is unqualified is as desperate as resorting to racial slurs. It's just a legitimate sounding way of saying: we don't like your type around here.
But the best thing of all is when people call what you're doing inappropriate. I've been hearing this word all my life and I only recently realized that it is, in fact, the sound of the homing beacon. "Inappropriate" is the null criticism. It's merely the adjective form of "I don't like it."
So that, I think, should be the highest goal for the marginal. Be inappropriate. When you hear people saying that, you're golden. And they, incidentally, are busted.